President Donald Trump’s public comments regularly reveal him to be unsuited to hold the most powerful office in the world, both temperamentally and intellectually. But nothing of late has made that quite as clear as the new White House statement on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination.
The statement, a defense of maintaining close ties with Saudi Arabia’s government published on Tuesday afternoon, reads like it was written by the president personally. It begins with a strange declarative statement — “The world is a very dangerous place!” — that seems tonally out of place on official White House letterhead. It then goes on to make a series of egregious factual, analytic, and moral errors, excusing Saudi Arabia’s murder of a US resident in a way that gives a green light to dictators around the world to kill their own citizens.
In a responsible White House, this statement would never have been drafted, let alone sent out to the entire world to read. But this is not a responsible White House, and will not be until we have a responsible commander-in-chief.
The Trump statement’s many errors
Trump statement: “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” pic.twitter.com/fSeVLtkzvq
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) November 20, 2018
On a purely factual level, Trump’s statement is egregiously misinformed. It asserts, falsely, that Saudi Arabia is investing $450 billion dollars in the US economy. It asserts, falsely, that Saudi Arabia is at war in Yemen in response to an Iranian intervention (the truth is closer to the other way around).
But the most factually egregious passage, by far, is the one where he discusses what’s known about journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi and who is responsible for his murder.
Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which he entered to fill out some paperwork. The CIA has concluded that it was a hit ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; it’s not clear what the motivation was, but it seems like retaliation for Khashoggi’s high-profile criticism of the Saudi government in outlets like the Washington Post. US intelligence intercepted a message from one of the hit men to a bin Salman aide, in which the killer informs the aide to “tell your boss” that Khashoggi is dead.
Yet Trump’s statement ignores all of that, reducing this to a “he said, she said” with the crown prince. It even reiterates the smear, originating with Saudi Arabia, that Khashoggi was a “member of the Muslim Brotherhood”:
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that — this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
Trump is undercutting US intelligence, refusing to state what they’ve concluded and giving equal weight to the denials from a dictator with a history of jailing, torturing, and even executing dissidents. This move is totally in character for bin Salman, yet the president is taking his side with an exclamation point.
Why? Well, Trump is honest about this: He sees Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally, and won’t let a little thing like murder get in the way:
We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!
This passage is the green light for murdering dissidents (again, with an exclamation point). Trump is overtly stating that whether or not MBS ordered the Khashoggi hit, it doesn’t matter: He believes Saudi Arabia is an important ally and doesn’t care what they do so long as they help with Trump’s priorities. In this case, those priorities are countering Iran, fighting terrorism, and “keeping oil prices at reasonable levels — so important for the world.”
There’s only one reasonable conclusion from this: The United States doesn’t care how friendly dictators treat their own people, even if that means murdering a US resident like Khashoggi. And indeed, Trump’s final lines all but explicitly say this:
As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!
This conclusion captures the enormity of the statement. Everything from siding with a dictator over US intelligence to the moral repulsiveness of the geopolitical logic to even the juvenile writing style screams an obvious fact: A man who released this under his name is not fit to run the world’s oldest democracy and most powerful country.